Fascinating Rhythm

Before I was a boxer, I was a band geek.

From early childhood, I’ve always had something musical going on, whether it was private lessons, classwork, or ensembles. I still play a few instruments, though nothing at all well. These days if I’m playing something, it’s probably the guitar, but for about a dozen years of my life, wherever I was, I was the resident drummer. Years and years of piano lessons led to the percussion section in the sixth grade concert band, and for the rest of my educational career, it was rare that I wasn’t involved in some kind of percussion-related project – orchestral tympani in high school and college, jazz vibraphone in high school, drumming for the jazz ensemble (and a short-lived punk band) in college, auxiliary percussion for the pit orchestra in a college production of Cabaret…the list goes on and on. I played a lot of other instruments over the years, but the one common thread for my school-age self, from age 11 onward, was percussion. I was usually the only one around, or one of two or three, who did it, and most of the time (barring my four years at an all-women college, and sometimes even THEN) I was the only girl.

There’s more than one obvious parallel between drumming and boxing, of course. But the most important thing I’ve found that they have in common is that I find myself constantly explaining to people that there’s way more to it than just indiscriminate hitting. “Keep your mitts off of my mallets – if you just come up and whack the gong in the middle without warming it up, you’ll probably break it,” or “actually, there’s a fair amount of strategy and technique involved, as well as self-discipline, so really, I’m not going to randomly beat you up” – it’s the same sentiment. And yeah, I’ll cop to having devoted time to the pure joy of hitting things (with gloves AND sticks) as a way to blow off steam from time to time, but more often, I’ve been absorbed in deconstructing the rhythms and strategies of both my instrument and my sport. I guess there’s just something about me that wants to find the elegant side of the most outwardly primal-looking activities.

I’ve been calling on my drummer background recently to improve my boxing technique. Specifically, it seems to have helped out with speed and reaction time when I’m doing padwork with my trainer. We’d run the same combinations over and over without any measurable change in speed that I could detect. But once I thought of the combo in terms of what my gloves should sound like on the pads, something clicked. I could perfectly replicate the “pa-POW” of the 1-2 whether I had my feet planted or I was in motion, and I didn’t have to think about it anymore. Whenever I deconstruct a combination into the drummer-language of flams and paradiddles and polyrhythms, and whenever I hear in my head the subtle gradations in pitch and volume and duration of each impact, it all seems to fall into place.

There is, of course, a danger to wrapping too much rhythm into your combinations. I’ve noticed it myself in sparring – if my opponent throws the same combo at the same speed more than once, I know where to step and when to counter. (It’s also one reason I’m not supposed to be listening to music when I do my roadwork. So I’ve switched to audiobooks, NPR, or Survivor reruns if I’m on the treadmill.) But that’s where my jazz training comes in. I spent years and years of my life as a drummer learning to land exactly on the beat. When I started studying jazz, things got a lot more complicated. (This is mostly a piano thing, but it came up in drumming as well on occasion.) Suddenly there would be reasons to anticipate a beat, or to drag a note out slightly longer than the music called for, and for weeks, I just couldn’t do it. It seemed wrong, after years of being conditioned to play exactly on the beat, to suddenly and deliberately go off of it. But as I got more comfortable with it, my appreciation and understanding of the rhythms deepened, and after a while I could effortlessly go from military-like precision to a more fluid sense of 1-2-3-4. Which has definitely informed my boxing. I grasped immediately that a key component of boxing strategy is establishing patterns and then breaking them. And that, to me, was cake – at least compared to most of the things I’ve had to learn as a boxer.

I’ll leave you with six and a half solid minutes of nothing but drumming, courtesy of this YouTube video and two of the greatest drummers of all time:

How anybody could watch that and still say that drumming is just a lot of hitting is as mind-boggling to me as how anybody could watch, say, Ali/Foreman and say that’s just a lot of hitting.

(Rush is definitely one of my go-to bands for training music, but I recognize that anybody who is not a nerd or a drummer probably doesn’t count Rush among their favorites. Hey, I’m both a nerd AND a drummer and for years I thought I hated them. I will confess I have not tried Buddy Rich as workout music, though I do have a healthy selection of jazz in my music library, so maybe it’s worth a shot.)

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One Response to Fascinating Rhythm

  1. I’m going to accesses my musician self when doing pad work!
    I have a feeling it will help me too.

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